The seizure of cocaine with a street value of $10.5 million and the arrest of three men in the drug bust Tuesday in Penn Hills underscores a growing concern about hard drugs taking root in Allegheny County's eastern suburbs, authorities said.
"We've got a battle in the East Hills, in the eastern sections of our county," Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. cautioned several police chiefs, who joined him for a news conference Wednesday about the bust.
"Even the scope of the type of drugs that you guys are taking off the streets -- that's not a good sign," he said.
Mr. Zappala said the bust yielded the largest amount of cocaine he has seen in 15 years as DA.
The investigation is ongoing, and authorities were executing two more search warrants Wednesday in an effort that began last week in Monroeville. One search warrant Wednesday yielded 4 more kilograms of cocaine -- bringing the total seized to 21 kilograms.
Leland Cobbs, 42, of Homewood and Faustino Hernandez Rodriguez, 36, of Mexico are each charged with criminal conspiracy, possession with intent to deliver and drug possession. William E. Wilson Jr., 42, of Penn Hills is charged with receiving stolen property, a firearms violation and criminal conspiracy. The firearms violation stems from Wilson's previous felony conviction, which bars him from having a gun.
They are being held at the Allegheny County Jail. Mr. Zappala said he could not explain the connection among the three men.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Pittsburgh field office is now assisting in the investigation, and authorities are looking into possible connections to a Mexican drug cartel.
"Obviously, this is not a matter that's going to begin or end at the borders of Pennsylvania," Mr. Zappala said. "It's going to go far beyond that."
Gary Davis, assistant special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh DEA, said "the majority of cocaine in this area does come from the Mexican border," though it's not yet clear where exactly the batch seized Tuesday is from.
"We're seeing a heavier influence of Mexican distribution organizations in this area as we've gone along," Mr. Davis said. "And there, preliminarily, seems to be some indication that's the case in this investigation."
Tuesday's bust stemmed from a meeting last week between Mr. Zappala and local law enforcement officials who have noticed an uptick in drug activity in the eastern part of the county, including at a Days Inn in Monroeville.
In that discussion, Monroeville police Chief Steven Pascarella expressed concern that because of "the nature of the road system," the eastern suburbs were becoming a destination point for drug transactions and criminals dealing in stolen property from burglaries, Mr. Zappala said.
Wilson's neighbors, who did not wish to use their names, said they were surprised to learn about the drug bust on their normally quiet, well-kept street, Pinewood Square, where traffic is normal and children play outside in the summer. Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton said his officers have received hardly any calls on that street and none reporting drug activity that he could recall.
But that's part of the allure of these areas, authorities said.
"Instead of selling your dope in Homewood, with how dangerous the streets are and how active the Pittsburgh police are, it's a lot safer to do it in commercial areas to the east," Mr. Zappala said.
And, according to at least one expert, more people have been seeking treatment lately for cocaine addictions.
"Over the last six months to a year, we're seeing more people coming in for cocaine," said Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center.
"Cocaine has been an issue for the last 25 years -- it has never gone away. We talk a lot about the prescription drug problem, the heroin problem, but cocaine has been pretty steady."
Authorities gave this account of the events leading up to Tuesday's arrests:
About 1 p.m. Tuesday, police followed a Honda Crosstour with Texas plates from the Days Inn on Mosside Boulevard in Monroeville to Wilson's Pinewood Square townhouse. Mr. Zappala said police believed the vehicle's occupants were acting suspiciously.
The man in the Honda gave authorities a false name -- David Chavez Carbajal -- but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said he is Faustino Hernandez Rodriguez, who is wanted by authorities in other jurisdictions, including in Texas, Mr. Zappala said.
A search of Wilson's townhouse yielded a stolen gun, about $100,000 in cash and 4 kilograms of cocaine, authorities said.
Police also searched a vehicle that belongs to Mr. Cobbs, who was observed leaving Wilson's townhouse carrying a large bag. The search of that vehicle netted another 13 kilograms of cocaine, Mr. Zappala said. Also, 4 additional kilos were found in Wilson's vehicle. Police also seized hashish and marijuana.
A secret compartment found in the vehicle Mr. Hernandez Rodriguez was driving contained more than $500,000 in cash, police said. Authorities turned all the money over to the DEA, which Mr. Zappala said will be used by county and suburban law enforcement to fight drug crimes.
The ongoing investigation also will explore the intended market for these drugs, Mr. Zappala said, noting there were likely middlemen in this operation.
Mr. Zappala would not say whether Wilson's wife also was being interviewed as part of this investigation.
The couple have been ordered to vacate their townhouse within 15 days, according to a notice dated Wednesday from the management company that was posted on the door of their home.
Molly Born: email@example.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede. Staff writer Anya Sostek contributed. First Published April 25, 2013 4:15 AM